May 16, 2005

Pulling a FAST one in the UK

Author: Tom Chance

Software piracy and copyright infringement are serious problems, whether with free or proprietary software. So few would complain if an organisation tried to uncover and help prosecute those who wantonly ignore license agreements. The UK-based Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) has been doing just that, but its tactics have prompted claims of extortion and bullying, worrying many small businesses and schools.

FAST was set up in 1984 by the British Computer Society's Copyright Committee to represent both producers and users of software. From its inception, it has tried to gather evidence of copyright violations, passing them on to the police or Trading Standards officers (government officials charged with enforcing a variety of trade-related laws). FAST then publicises any raids that happen as a result of its work.

Citing a survey conducted by IDC and commissioned by the Business Software Alliance (BSA), FAST's Director General John Lovelock told NewsForge that £860m was lost in 2003 because of software piracy. The task for FAST, representing between seven and eight thousand businesses, is to cut this figure down. Of course, FAST isn't alone in this fight. The BSA is the best known proprietary copyright crusader, and the volunteer-led GPL-violations team began tracking down free software license violations only last year.

FAST has few powers. Copyright violations can be prosecuted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988, and carry the possibility of an unlimited fine and up to 10 years imprisonment per offence. But FAST cannot forcibly search anyone's premises, nor can it charge anyone for suspected infringements. Instead it gathers evidence sufficient to prompt Trading Standards officers to meet their statutory duty to look into copyright offences. These officers can then enter your premises without a search warrant and demand that, within two days, you demonstrate your compliance with the Act. If you fail to comply, and if there is reasonable suspicion that your organisation -- whether private or public -- is infringing software copyright in the course of its business, Section 109 of the Act gives the police the power to secure a search warrant from a magistrate's court. A FAST representative can accompany police in a search of an organisation's premises if they are named on the warrant.

FAST originally focused on car boot sales, computer fairs, and other occasions where they could easily uncover violations. But it soon changed its focus to the corporate environment, working with British Standards (BSI) to actively contact companies with letter campaigns. In 1999 it dropped its enforcement campaigns, returning to civil settlements because, according to Lovelock, it had succeeded to such a degree that piracy had actually started to go down. Now it's back with letters and cold calls to any company with 30 PCs or more (around 38,000 are targetted, according to Lovelock).

Friendly advice or extortion racket?

Paul Cooper of OpenAdvantage, a Centre of Excellence for Open Source software in the West Midlands region of the UK, described FAST's new approach to NewsForge: "We had heard recently from a company we were working with. They met with a FAST representative who warned of hefty fines for license infringements, and offered an audit for a considerable sum of money."

According to Lovelock, the procedure is perfectly legitimate: they contact companies and offer to meet to discuss the problem of copyright violations. If an appointment is made, an area officer will visit the site and do a risk assessment, making clear in a friendly and unthreatening manner the potential pitfalls associated with violations. Companies can then choose to subscribe to FAST's own compliance programme, seek another service, or work towards compliance in-house.

But this benign description doesn't match up to what NewsForge has heard from Cooper, amongst others. "To me," Cooper continued, "the whole thing sounded a lot like a scene out of a bad gangster movie, with the heavy saying to the restaurant owner: 'This is a nice place, it would be a shame if it got damaged.'" According to Cooper, his clients have been intimidated by FAST and pressured into signing up to FAST's compliance programme. None of his clients were willing to talk on the record to NewsForge about the issue for fear of being singled out.

Ian Lynch, the AFFS committee member responsible for education, had a similar story to tell: "I travel extensively throughout the country working with schools on management planning. I'm beginning to hear more about what appears to me to be an unethical approach to marketing software auditing tools. The school is approached by FAST as if they have already been proved to have been acting illegally."

Lovelock denied that FAST even contacts schools directly, saying that they may hear from FAST through a contractor. One school NewsForge spoke to was unwilling to talk publicly, but confirmed that they had been contacted directly by FAST.

According to Lynch, "FAST seem to play on this fear and insecurity with oblique references to prison to put pressure on the school to buy their audit product. In my book demanding money with menaces is extortion."

NewsForge couldn't directly confirm, on the record, these claims. FAST denies any accusations of malpractice. However, the claims are similar to FAST's admission in 1997 that fear was a key part of its operation. It is easy to see how mentioning substantial fines and prison sentences could increase the uptake of your compliance programmes.

For organisations that use a number of software products, each with its own license, tracking licences can be difficult and time-consuming. FAST provides software and consultancy to help organisations with this, competing with many others who shirk the enforcement role that FAST have adopted. But as Lynch pointed out, "There is an
obvious expense and risk in dealing with software that has complex and restrictive licensing designed to optimise profits that simply does not apply to free and open source products." FAST doesn't yet deal with cases of open source license violations, since, as Lovelock explained, they only act on cases involving their membership.

Schools and businesses can ensure compliance simply by scrupulously using nothing but free software. If the need arises to modify software and consequently redistribute those changes, then the organisation need only release the source code alongside the compiled software. For organisations using proprietary software, being mindful of the restrictive licenses is obviously essential. But being both wary of and informed about organisations like FAST also seems wise.

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